Mandatory Minimums

RSS Feed for this category

Why Are Prosecutors Trying to Send a First Step Act Ex-Prisoner Back to Prison? [FEATURE]

Back in 1994, in the depths of the war on drugs, Sonny Mikell picked up a third federal drug conviction in Florida and was handed a mandatory minimum sentence of life in prison. No guns, no violence, but the 22-year-old black man was still looking at spending the rest of his life behind bars.

"I had jobs off and on, I worked as a cook, but I got on the path of selling drugs and caught and charged in 1991 and 1992, and then caught that last one in '94," Mikell said in an interview last week. "And they gave me a life sentence for conspiracy to sell crack. All they needed was the two priors, and then they could hand down a life sentence."

Sonny Mikell is emblematic of the tens of thousands of people, disproportionately black and brown, imprisoned with draconian sentences under repressive drug laws passed with bipartisan support in the 1980s and 1990s. The war on drugs caused both state and federal prison populations to skyrocket, cementing the land of the free's status as the world's leading jailer.

In the federal prison system, where Mikell did his time, fewer than 5,000 people were doing time for drug offenses in 1980, before the Reagan-era acceleration of the Nixon-era drug war. By 1995, that number had increased a whopping ten-fold to more than 52,000. With more harsh drug sentences in the 1994 crime bill, the number of federal drug prisoners doubled again to a peak of nearly 99,000 in 2010, before beginning to fall as 21st century efforts to undo the damage of mass incarceration began to kick in.

For 25 years, Mikell did his time quietly while picking up only one minor disciplinary infraction: "I worked, I was a cook in the kitchen, I studied law, I worked on my case, I filed motions to try and see what could help," Mikell said of his years behind bars. "Most got denied."

But as Mikell and thousands like him rotted behind bars for decades, attitudes toward the war on drugs and the resort to mass incarceration to wage it have changed and pressure for relief mounted. Given the failure of the drug war to eliminate drug use, arguably even to reduce it, and given the damage done to communities of color by heavy-handed policing and ever-increasing numbers of breadwinners hauled off to prison and families disrupted, the states began embracing sentencing reforms shortly after the turn of the century.

But it would take a few years more for those new realizations to work their way to the federal law and give Mikell and his fellow federal drug war prisoners the hope that they might somehow, someday be given a second chance. That came under the Obama administration.

While Obama-era Attorney General Eric Holder took significant steps to ease drug-related mass incarceration, such as advising prosecutors to not seek the toughest possible charges, it was the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010 that marked the first effort to redress the inequities of the drug war. That law reduced -- but did not eliminate -- the disparity in the sentencing of crack and powder cocaine offenses. According to the US Sentencing Commission, the new law helped both to reduce the federal prison population and to lower sentences for new crack offenders,

But because the new law wasn't retroactive, it did no good for Mikell and his imprisoned peers. That changed in 2011, when the Sentencing Commission voted to retroactively apply new, more lenient sentencing guidelines in the Fair Sentencing Act to people sentenced before the law was enacted. With that move, thousands of federal prisoners have been able to seek and obtain sentencing reductions.

But not Sonny Mickell. The Sentencing Commission's move only affected federal sentencing guidelines, not the mandatory minimum laws that had him in a box for life. It would take that rare Trump-era bipartisan achievement, the passage of the First Step Act late last year, to give Mickell a shot at freedom. That law extended the sentencing reductions for crack offenders to people sentenced prior to the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act -- even those with mandatory minimums.

"Hoping it was my chance, I filed for clemency when Obama was in office," Mikell recalled. "The Clemency Project tried, but I get denied. I told myself I couldn't lose hope, and when the First Step Act passed and made those sentencing cuts retroactive, I contacted my lawyers and asked if I qualified."

"I was assigned to Sonny's case," explained Juliann Welch, a federal public defender in the appellate division of the Middle District of Florida. "The judge set a hearing for the case on March 15 and I was ready to argue that he was eligible for some relief, but the judge had already reviewed the records and said he didn't see any reason to keep Sonny in prison and reduced his sentence to time served right there."

Even though federal prosecutors objected to the summary ruling, Welch said it was clearly the correct call: "When they passed the First Step Act, sentences like Sonny's are the wrong they were trying to right," she said. "He had never done a day in prison and then got a mandatory life sentence as a young kid for a nonviolent drug crime."

"Ms. Welch called me the same day the judge issued the order, and they gave me a bus ticket home," Mikell recalled. "That's all they gave me."

In the couple of months that Mikell has been free, he's been reuniting with family, trying to catch up with technology, and trying to reestablish himself in society.

"I have good family support," he said, explaining that the mother of a woman he had dated basically adopted him while he was in prison. "She is a goodhearted woman, she always stayed in contact, and she's still there. It was a sight for me to see her. I can still hardly believe it. I still don't know how to use these phones, though," he laughed.

But being able to find employment is no laughing matter for an ex-con. "I've got a drivers' license and I'm looking for a job, but people want to know what's on your resume, where you've been. Every day I try to find a job, but it's tough with that hanging over my head."

Mikell has something else hanging over his head, too: A potential move by federal prosecutors to appeal his sentence cut and send him back to prison for life.

While prosecutors have yet to actually file their appeal to send Mikell back to prison, Welch said their legal issue was a bit of sentencing arcana that revolved around the weight of the drug for which he could be held culpable. Although he was only found guilty for 50 grams by a jury, a sentencing judge using a lesser standard of evidence in effect at the time found him culpable for 290 grams.

Prosecutors will argue that current federal drug statutes that have a 280-gram cutoff would render Mikell ineligible for release under the provisions of the First Step Act. Welch is prepared to fight that case on its merits, but wonders what the prosecutors are thinking.

"Even though the judge found him responsible for 290 grams, the government never proved anything beyond 50 grams," she said. "But we will argue it and have to wonder why they think a sentencing finding of ten extra grams is worth sending him back to prison for life."

"I think that's just wrong," said Mikell. "The law is designed to help guys like me who have been in for years and years. It gives judges the discretion to give a man a second chance, and these prosecutors are coming back and saying we want you in prison, but they're not looking at the individual, just the law. I didn't do any violent crime on the street or in prison. I don't understand why they're trying to send me back to prison."

Neither does public defender Welch. "They haven't move to reincarcerate him pending appeal," said Welch. "If they really thought he was a public threat, they would have moved to keep him in prison, but they didn't."

Appealing First Step Act sentence cuts would seem to run counter of the law's goals, and it's not clear who in the Justice Department is advising prosecutors to appeal Mikell's case, Welch explained.

"The US Attorney has to have the permission of the Solicitor General to appeal, but we don't actually know how far up the chain this has gone," she said.

Hundreds of inmates have already received sentence cuts under the First Step Act, but at least one other released prisoner has been threatened with an appeal. Gregory Allen's was a similar case to Mikell's, with federal prosecutors raising the same legal issues.

In Allen's case, though, prosecutors voluntarily dismissed the appeal. Maybe it was because it they thought it would look bad since the man they were going after had just been to the White House in an event where President Trump hosted ex-inmates helped by the First Step Act.

"We don't know why that dropped that appeal," Welch said. "We suspect it had something to do with the optics. The Justice Department and US Attorneys have to consider which cases they want to make the face of this fight."

Prosecutors have until the end of the month to actually file their appeal. Welch and Mikell are hoping they will reconsider. After all, that's what the First Step Act is supposed to do.

Chronicle AM: Bill to Cut CA Marijuana Tax Advances, Prison Population Continues to Decline, More... (4/24/19)

A bill to cut California marijuana taxes is moving, a New Hampshire legalization bill gets a hearing, the US prison population continues a decade-long decline, and more.

The Golden State is looking to cut marijuana taxes in a bid to boost the legal market. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Federal Bill Would Seal Records of Old Marijuana Convictions. Reps. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) and Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) have filed the Clean Slate Act, which would automatically seal federal criminal records for marijuana convictions. It also contains a provision that would allow people to ask federal courts to seal records for other nonviolent offenses that aren't automatically sealed, such as those involving other drugs. The bill is not yet available on the congressional web site.

California Bill to Cut Marijuana Tax Advances. A bill that would temporarily suspend the marijuana cultivation tax in a bid to boost the legal market has been approved by the Assembly Business and Professions Committee, but only after a provision that would have reduced excise taxes was removed to satisfy the committee chair. AB 286 now heads for the Assembly Appropriations Committee, the last stop before an Assembly floor vote.

Maine Releases New Draft Rules For Recreational Marijuana Market. State regulators have released new draft rules for the legal marijuana program approved by voters two years ago. The draft contains proposals for how the market will be monitored, regulated, and launched by the Office of Marijuana Policy.

New Hampshire Legalization Bill Gets Hearing. A legalization bill, HB 481, got a Senate committee hearing Tuesday. The bill would legalize possession and cultivation by adults as well as set up a commission to develop regulations for a legal marijuana market. The bill has already passed the House, but faces a veto threat by Gov. Chris Sununu (R).

Medical Marijuana

Alabama Senate Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Bill. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-2 Tuesday to approve HB 243, the CARE Act, which would create the Alabama Cannabis Commission, establish a patient registry system, and extend an earlier law that allowed the University of Alabama-Birmingham to study the effects of CBD on epileptic patients. This bill would allow for the use of medical marijuana, not just CBD.

Arkansas to Reissue Medical Marijuana Cards. The state Department of Health said it will automatically reissue its year-long medical marijuana cards to qualifying patients who have received them in the months before the drug could be sold. The cards will be sent to patients and caregivers when the first dispensary opens so they can be used for the full year term.

Hemp

Texas House Approves Hemp Bill. The House on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to HB 1325, which would allow farmers in the state to legally grow industrial hemp. The bill now heads to the Senate.

Sentencing

Number of Federal, State Prisoners Continue to Decrease. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has released prisoner numbers for the end of 2017 and finds that the number of inmates under state and federal jurisdiction dropped 2.1% from 2016 to 2017. That continues a decade-long trend that has seen prison populations decrease 13% since 2007. Drug offenders constitute 48% of federal inmates, but only about 20% of state inmates.

Missouri Omnibus Sentencing and Criminal Justice Reform Bill Advances. A bill that would reform mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, reform civil asset forfeiture, reform racial profiling statutes, and more has passed the House Fiscal Review Committee. HCB 2 now heads for a House floor vote.

New York And Pennsylvania Will No Longer Suspend Driver's Licenses Over Drug Crimes. With new laws going into effect this month, Pennsylvania and New York will no longer suspend drivers licenses of people convicted of drug crimes. Before this, any drug conviction, even if it had nothing to do with driving, triggered a mandatory license suspension of at least six months.

International

British Columbia's Top Doctor Calls for Drug Decriminalization. In a report released Wednesday, BC Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has proposed decriminalizing the possession of drugs for personal use in a bid to reduce the harms caused by the province's ongoing overdose crisis. "As the Provincial Health Officer of BC, I recommend that the Province of BC urgently move to decriminalize people who possess controlled substances for personal use," Henry said. "This is a fundamental underpinning and necessary next step for the continued provincial response to the overdose crisis in BC." The report is Stopping the Harm: Decriminalization of People Who Use Drugs in BC.

Chronicle AM: FL Bill Would End Mandatory Minimums, BC Plan for Heroin Buyers Clubs, More... (2/22/19)

The Philippines president vows even harsher drug war, the Mexican Senate approves a new national guard to fight drug crime, a Florida bill would end mandatory minimum drug sentences, and more.

Pharmaceutical heroin. Could it be coming to heroin buyers clubs in Vancouver? (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Regulatory Bill Advances. The House Rules Committee voted Thursday to advance HB 2612, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana and Patient Protection Act. The bill sets up an extensive medical marijuana framework and is moving with bipartisan support.

Asset Forfeiture

Missouri Bill to End Civil Asset Forfeiture Advances. The House Judiciary Committee has approved  HB 444, which would bar law enforcement from confiscating assets from someone unless and until that person is convicted of a criminal offense. The bill now heads to the House floor.

Sentencing

Florida Criminal Justice Reform Bill Would End Mandatory Minimums. A sweeping criminal justice reform bill that includes ending mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses has been introduced in the Senate. SB 642, the Florida First Step Act must get past the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate Criminal Justice Committee before heading for a Senate floor vote.

International

British Columbia Plan for "Heroin Buyers Club" Unveiled. The BC Center of Substance Abuse Thursday unveiled a plan to create a heroin buyers club to sell pure, regulated heroin to people addicted to opioids.  The cooperative group would buy bulk medical grade heroin from Switzerland to sell to doctor-assessed club members. The plan is part of the effort to stem overdoses in Vancouver. Informal heroin buyers clubs are reportedly already operating in the city, but their supplies are iffy.

Mexican Senate Approves Plan for New National Guard to Fight Crime, Drugs. The Senate on Thursday approved President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s plan to create a new national guard, a key part of the government’s strategy to address drug gang violence. But the Senate amended the legislation to ensure that the new security force is headed by civilians, not the military, which has been linked to numerous human rights violations.

Philippines President Vows "Harsher" Drug War in Coming Days. President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to ramp up his bloody anti-drug campaign in a speech Wednesday. The war on drugs will be "harsher in the days to come," he said. When asked by reporters if the crackdown would be even bloodier, he said: "I think so." The remarks were condemned by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights: "With thousands that have already been killed because of this campaign, ‘harsh’ is an understatement and a trivialization of the lives that were lost—it is irreversible and the suffering of families of victims can be lifelong," Jacqueline De Guia, CHR spokesperson, said. "To say that it will be ‘harsher’ insults the victims and their families while the drug trade has not seemingly waned."

Thai King Signs Decree Legalizing Medical Marijuana and Kratom. Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn has signed a royal decree formalizing the legalization of medical marijuana and kratom. The move comes some two months after the military government’s parliament unanimously approved it. 

Chronicle AM: AG Nominee Addresses Sentencing, OH Sees First MMJ Dispensary, More... (1/16/19)

William Barr addresses concerns about his sentencing policy history, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) reiterates his call to pass a legalization bill, Ohio sees its first medical marijuana dispensary, and more.

The Buckeye State sees a landmark day. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Renews Call for Marijuana Legalization. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) used his State of the State address Tuesday to renew his call for marijuana legalization. “By legalizing adult-use marijuana – first and foremost – we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good,” he said. He also called for the expungement of past pot possession arrests. “We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education,” he said. A legalization bill is already very near the finish line, but Murphy and legislators are still haggling over issues such as tax rates.

Medical Marijuana

Ohio Dispensary Sales Begin Today. A Sandusky dispensary initiated the era of legal medical marijuana sales in the Buckeye State on Wednesday, making its first sale to a card-carrying woman who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Four other dispensaries have received their final licenses but have not opened yet. Eventually, there should be 56 dispensaries statewide.

South Carolina Legislators Unveil Medical Marijuana Bill. A pair of Republican legislators, state Sen. Tom Davis and Rep. Peter McCoy, on Tuesday filed a medical marijuana, the Compassionate Care Act (S 366). “This is South Carolina, not California or Colorado, and what the vast majority of people in our state want is a socially conservative medical marijuana law, one that provides medical patients truly in need with relief but draws a bright line against recreational use by imposing strict penalties,” Davis said.

Sentencing

Attorney General Nominee Defends Harsh Sentencing But Says He is Open to Sentencing Reform. During his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Trump's nominee for attorney general, William Barr, defended his role in harsh mandatory minimum sentencing practices in the 1980s and 1990s but said he is now open to sentencing reforms, such as the Fair Sentencing Act, which passed Congress last month. "From my perspective, the very draconian penalties on crack were put in place initially because when the crack epidemic first hit, it was like nuclear weapons going off in inner cities," Barr told Sen. Dick Durbin (D–Ill.). "The initial reaction was actually trying to help those communities. Over time, those same leaders are now saying to us, 'This is devastating. Generations of us have been incarcerated.' And we should listen to the same people we were listening to before."

In Rare Show of Bipartisanship, Senate Passes Prison and Sentencing Reform Bill [FEATURE]

In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate on Tuesday approved a major prison and sentencing reform bill, the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to pass it easily, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

Give Chuck Grassley some kudos for shepherding the passage of the bill. (senate.gov)
Introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA), and Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Mike Lee (R-UT), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), the bill added significant sentencing reform provisions to a prison reform bill passed earlier by the House.

"The First Step Act will help keep our streets safe and it offers a fresh start to those who've put in the work to get right with the law while paying their debt to society," Grassley said on the Senate floor after the vote. "It also addresses unfairness in prison sentencing and revises policies that have led to overcrowded prisons and ballooning taxpayer expenses."

"I think we showed something which most American people wouldn't have believed -- that a bipartisan group of Senators from across the political spectrum could tackle one of the toughest political issues of our day, assemble an array of support -- left, right, and center -- from members of the Senate as well as organizations devoted to law enforcement as well as civil rights, and at the end of it have something we all felt was a fair product to send over to the House, which I hope will act on this very quickly," Durbin said. "It is, however, the first step. We've got to start thinking about the second step. And we need the help of all of our colleagues when shaping that."

In addition to the prison reform language, the bill's key sentencing provisions include:

  • Retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people;
  • Expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years;
  • Eliminate "stacking" for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense.

"Passing these reforms has been a team effort years in the making," Grassley continued. "It couldn't have been done without the stalwart commitment by a somewhat unlikely cadre of colleagues and advocates. We've had to compromise to make this possible, to seek to understand the other's point of view. In doing so, I think we made the bill better. And we accomplished something of historic significance that will reduce crime, make our system more just, and improve lives for generations to come."

The First Step Act was backed by a number of law enforcement groups, including the nation's largest police group, as well as 172 former federal prosecutors and sheriffs from 34 states across the country. The National Governors Association, which represents the governors of all 50 states, praised the bill. A broad coalition of conservative and progressive groups along with a host of business leaders and faith-based organizations also support the First Step Act.

For progressives and drug reformers, though, the bill is indeed only a first step. It does nothing, for example, to address the plight of people sentenced to life in prison for drug offenses, and that leaves reformers offering only qualified praise.

"The Senate's version of the legislation, while far from perfect, includes crucial sentencing reforms that safely reduce the footprint of the federal criminal justice system from the front end," said Ed Chung, vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. "Additionally, the Senate added important checks on the US Department of Justice as it creates a risk and needs assessment and a system of programs and education in the Bureau of Prisons."

"This is a bittersweet moment," said Michael Collins, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "The bill represents progress and we should celebrate the release of thousands of people serving disproportionately long sentences, but at the same time the bill leaves far too many people behind. It's a tough compromise for us and we must keep fighting for much deeper systemic changes."

The Year in Drugs I: The Top Domestic Drug Policy Stories of 2018 [FEATURE]

This is a year that just about everybody is eager to see come to an end, but when it comes to drug policy, 2018 hasn't been half-bad, at least in the US. (Check back next week for our Top International Drug Policy Stories.)

We've seen marijuana legalization spread further, we're on the verge of seeing Congress pass major sentencing reform legislation, and the ban on domestic hemp cultivation is coming to an end, among other things.

A lot went on in drug policy in 2018. Here are eight stories that helped define the year:

1. Overdose Deaths Remain Unconscionably High But Appear to Have Leveled Off

That's enough fentanyl to kill you. It killed thousands this year. (dea.gov)
The nation's fatal drug overdose crisis is far from over, but it now looks like it at least didn't get any worse this year. Driven in large part by the rise of fentanyl, overdose deaths reached a stunning 72,000 in 2017, a figure ten times the number in 1980 and double that of only a decade ago.

But preliminary reports on the 2018 overdose numbers suggest that this may be the year the crisis began to ease. In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released provisional data showing that overdose deaths had declined for six straight months, dropping 2.8 percent from their 2017 peak. That report also found that opioid overdose deaths had declined by 2.3 percent.

With both heroin and prescription opioid deaths declining, fentanyl has emerged as the most common drug involved in overdoses, being implicated in about a quarter of all drug overdose deaths. While the apparent decline in opioid overdose deaths this year is good news, the recent increases in cocaine and methamphetamine overdose deaths is not. And while any break in a years-long climb in overdose deaths is certainly welcome, another 70,000 or so Americans will still have died from them this year. We have a long, long way to go.

2. Safe Injection Sites Draw Nearer, But Feds Fire Warning Shots

Safe injection sites -- also known as supervised consumption sites, among other names -- where drug users can consume their doses under medical supervision and with an opportunity to engage with social services are a proven harm reduction intervention. More than a hundred cities around the world, mainly in Europe, Canada, and Australia have resorted to such facilities as a means of providing better outcomes, not only for drug users but also for the communities in which they live.

There are no legally permitted safe injection sites in the United States (although some underground ones are reportedly operating in Seattle, and there may be more in hiding), but this year saw mounting pressure and serious efforts to get them up and running in a number of American states and cities. It also saw mounting resistance from federal officials.

At the state level, California, Colorado, Missouri, and New York all saw safe injection site bills filed. Only the bill in California made it out of the legislature, but to the great frustration of reformers, it was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who cited long outdated beliefs about substance use in his veto message. Still, the fact that bills are being filed shows the issue is gaining momentum.

The momentum is even stronger among a handful of major cities. Denver, New York City, Philadelphia, and Seattle have all taken steps to clear the way for safe injection sites this year, although none are yet in place.

While like California's Gov. Brown, some state and local level political figures are hesitant to embrace them, a major reason none is yet in place is federal hostility. As the clamor for the facilities grows louder, so does opposition from the Trump administration. As Denver publicly pondered opening one, the local DEA and the US Attorney loudly warned they would be illegal, and the Philadelphia US Attorney did the same thing. Early in the year, the DEA in Washington issued a warning against safe injection sites, and in August, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein authored an op-ed in the New York Times issuing similar dire threats.

3. A Major Federal Sentencing Reform Bill Is Set to Pass

A rare example of bipartisanship on the Hill. (Creative Commons)
The first major federal sentencing reform bill in eight years is now one vote away from passing Congress. The bill, known as the First Step Act (S.3649), is the culmination of years of work by the likes of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), and includes prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses. It very nearly died earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced he would not bring it to a Senate floor vote, but under broad pressure, including from President Trump, McConnell relented, and the bill passed the Senate Tuesday

The sentencing reforms include retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years.

The late word is that the bill will pass the House easily, but that hasn't happened as of this writing. If and when it does, the country will have taken a significant step toward a more just and humane federal criminal justice system. The passage has also drawn major media attention as a rare example of bipartisanship in Washington today.

4. Marijuana Legalization Advances in the States

At the beginning of the year, marijuana for adult recreational use was legal in eight states, all in the West or New England and all thanks to the initiative process. As 2018 comes to a close, that number has jumped to ten, with Vermont in January becoming the first state to legalize it through the legislature and Michigan in November becoming the first Midwest state to legalize it.

The initiative process is available in only half the states, and when it comes to legalizing weed, the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. A legalization initiative in conservative Nebraska went down to defeat this year, and remaining initiative states like the Dakotas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Arkansas are among the most socially conservative and least likely to free the weed. But prospects are rosier in initiative states Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio. We are likely to see pot on the ballot in all three in 2020.

Vermont remains the sole state to legalize it legislatively, but a handful of states edged ever closer close this year. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) wanted pot legalized in his first 100 days. That didn't happen, and legalization hasn't gotten through the legislature yet, but there is a small chance it could still happen this year and a very good chance it will be a done deal by early next year. Legislatures throughout the Mid-Atlantic states and Northeast grappled with the issue, laying the groundwork for next year and the year beyond, and just this week, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called for legalization next year. The long march continues.

5. Marijuana Is Still Federally Illegal, But the Crackdown Never Came

As the year comes to end, legal weed is still here and Jeff Sessions isn't. President Trump's first attorney general was an avowed foe of marijuana (as well as drug and criminal justice reform in general), but despite rescinding the Obama-era Cole memo, which basically told federal prosecutors to leave state law-abiding pot businesses alone, the much-feared crackdown on the industry never came.

Federal prosecutors, for the most part, continue to view legal marijuana businesses as a low priority, especially when faced with much more serious drug problems, such as the opioid overdose epidemic. But Sessions was also undercut by his own boss, who in April arranged a deal with Colorado Republican Sen. Cory Gardner in which he agreed to support a bill protecting states that have broken with federal pot prohibition in return for Gardner's allowing Justice department appointments to move forward.

This year saw a plethora of federal marijuana reform bills, but with Republican leadership in both houses firmly opposed, the Capitol was where marijuana reform went to die. With Democrats in control of the House next year, things promise to be different next year, although the GOP-led Senate will remain an obstacle. But with pot consistently polling in the 60s, those Republican senators may grudgingly start coming on board.

6. Marijuana Legalization is Nice, But We Need Social Justice, Too

This year saw social justice concerns around marijuana legalization move front and center in two distinct ways: demands for the expungement of marijuana arrest records for people whose offenses are no longer crimes and demands for restorative racial justice from communities that have suffered the brunt of the war on drugs.

The year started with two major West Coast cities, San Francisco and Seattle, leading the way on expungement. The, in September, California became the first state to put state-level automatic expungement into effect. Delaware and Rhode Island, which have both decriminalized but not legalized pot, also passed expungement bills this year. Expungement is also a contentious issue in the ongoing battle to get legalization passed in New Jersey.

After a half-dozen years of legalization and well-heeled white guys making bank off legal weed, the call for racial justice, whether in terms of set-asides to guarantee minority participation in the industry or for funding streams aimed at restoring drug war-ravaged communities, is growing too loud to be ignored. This is an ongoing struggle now being played out not only in pot-legal states, but especially in states on the cusp of legalization. Moving forward, it's likely that every successful state legalization bill is going to have to address issues of social and racial justice. As they should.

7. Industrial Hemp Becomes Federally Legal

The sun rises on the American domestic hemp industry. (votehemp.org)
Finally, the absolutely most ridiculous aspect of federal marijuana prohibition is dead. Recreational marijuana's country cousin, hemp can't get anyone high, but is extremely useful in a broad range of industries, from foods to textiles and beyond. Thanks to a lawsuit from hemp interests more than a decade ago, hemp could be imported for American firms to use in their products, but because the DEA refused to recognize any distinction between hemp and recreational marijuana, American farmers were forced to stand on the sidelines as their competitors in China, Canada, and other countries raked in the rewards.

But having a hemp-friendly senator from a hemp-friendly state allowed hemp legalization to move this year. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) actually fought for the hemp bill, shepherding it into the must-pass farm appropriations bill and keeping it in there through negotiations with the House. President Trump has signed the farm bill, including the hemp provision, into law.

8. Here Come the 'Shrooms

Initiative campaigns to legalize or decriminalize the use and possession of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms began popping up in 2018. Actually, the first state-level initiative came last year in California, but this past summer it failed to qualify for the fall ballot.

Right now, there are two psilocybin initiatives in the signature-gathering phase, a municipal initiative in Denver that would decriminalize the use, possession, and cultivation of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and the statewide Oregon Psilocybin Service Initiative, which would decriminalize possession of psilocybin, allow magic mushrooms to be grown with a license, and would allow for therapeutic use of psilocybin. The Denver initiative would go before voters in May 2019, while the Oregon initiative aims at the 2020 election.

If psilocybin initiatives follow the pattern set by marijuana legalization initiatives, the first time may not be the charm. But more will follow.

Chronicle AM: Senate Passes Sentencing Reform Bill, NM Sued Over MedMJ Rules and Fees, More... (12/19/18)

A major sentencing reform bill takes a major step toward becoming law, a New Mexico medical marijuana producer is suing the state over rules and fees, and more.

Some federal drug prisoners will get relief under the bill passed by the Senate Tuesday. (nadcp.org)
Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Delays Dispensary License Announcement. The state Medical Marijuana Commission announced Tuesday it would delay its meeting to announce licenses for state dispensaries. The commission was originally scheduled to meet today but postponed that meeting until January 9. The state plans to allow dispensaries to operate in somewhere between 20 and 32 sites.

New Mexico Sued Over Edibles Rules. The state's largest medical marijuana producer has filed a lawsuit against the state health department over regulations governing edibles, salves, lotions, and other products infuse with marijuana. Ultra Health argues that the department doesn't have the authority to license legal marijuana manufacturers and that the fees are too high.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

DC Council Votes to Approves Opioid Treatment Bill. The DC Council voted Tuesday to advance the Opioid Use Disorder Treatment & Safe Access Amendment Act of 2018, legislation that would help curb the overdose crisis in the Nation's capital. The omnibus bill includes provisions that make the temporary emergency measure that decriminalizes drug checking kits permanent, removes restrictions on syringe exchange programs, and expands access to medication-assisted treatment in the District. The bill now goes to the mayor for final approval.

Sentencing Reform

Senate Passes Prison and Sentencing Reform Bill. The Senate approved the First Step Act (S.3649) on a vote of 87-12 on Tuesday. The bill contains prison reform language as well as provisions that would reduce sentences for certain drug offenses, including retroactivity for the Fair Sentencing Act (the 2010 law that reduced the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity), allowing the potential release of around 2,600 people; expansion of the "safety valve" allowing judges more discretion to sentence beneath mandatory minimum sentences; reform of the "three strikes" law, reducing the "second strike" mandatory minimum of 20 years to 15 years, and reducing the "third strike" mandatory minimum of life-in-prison to 25 years; and eliminating "stacking" for firearm offenses, meaning that prosecutors cannot add sentencing enhancements to individuals who may possess a firearm while committing their first federal offense. The bill now goes back to the House, which is expected to easily pass, and then to the desk of President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

Chronicle AM: Bill Barr's Drug Warrior Past, Iran Warns Sanction Could Bring "Deluge of Drugs," More... (12/10/18)

Trump's sanctions could come back to bite us, Iran warns; Trump's new attorney general pick has some solid drug warrior credentials, the WHO postpones a recommendation on marijuana scheduling, and more.

Iran interdicts more opium and heroin than any other country. (UNODC)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Governor-Elect to End Former Governor's Court Battles Over Medical Marijuana. Incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) is parting ways with his predecessor, Rick Scott (R), when it comes to medical marijuana. A spokesman for DeSantis said last Friday that he is unwilling to continue Scott's court battles over the state's voter-approved medical marijuana law. "He is not interested in continuing that fight. I think he has a different perspective than Governor Scott," said spokeswoman Jeannette Nunez. "I think he wants the will of the voters to be implemented."

Foreign Policy

US Sanctions Could Lead to "Deluge of Drugs," Iran Warns. If US sanctions imposed by the Trump administration weaken Iran's ability to contain the opium trade from neighboring Afghanistan, the result could be a "deluge" of drugs, President Hassan Rouhani warned in a speech carried on state television last Friday. "I warn those who impose sanctions that if Iran's ability to fight drugs and terrorism are affected... you will not be safe from a deluge of drugs, asylum seekers, bombs and terrorism, Rouhani said. "We spend $800 million a year to fight drugs which ensures the health of nations stretching from of Eastern Europe to the American West and North Africa to West Asia. Imagine what a disaster there would be if there is a breach in the dam," Rouhani said. "We don't expect the West to pay their share, but they should know that sanctions hurt Iran's capacity to fight drugs and terrorism."

Law Enforcement

Trump's New Attorney General Pick Has Record as Drug Warrior. The president's pick to be the new attorney general, former Attorney General William Barr, may be less hostile to marijuana than Jeff Sessions, but as attorney general under George HW Bush, he pushed hard for more incarceration of drug offenders. More recently, he wrote a 2015 letter defending the criminal justice system as not in need of serious reform and defending mandatory minimum sentencing in particular, while encouraging Congress not to act on a sentencing reform bill. "It's hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one," Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. "Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump's recent endorsement of sentencing reform."

International

WHO Postpones Recommendation for Rescheduling Marijuana. Saying it needed more time to review findings, the World Health Organization (WHO) postponed making any recommendation on rescheduling marijuana. The recommendation was expected to be made at last Friday at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting in Vienna, but that didn't happen. No new date has been provided.

Mexico's New Government Takes Aim at Cartel Finances. Mexican Financial Intelligence Unit head Santiago Nieto announced last Thursday that he had filed a complaint against three businesses and seven people linked to the Jalisco New Generation cartel. Nieto said that was only the opening salvo in the fight to stop organized crime from flourishing with impunity.

McConnell Puts Kibosh on Sentencing Reform [FEATURE]

Prospects for a major federal sentencing reform bill brightened on Wednesday with President Trump's announcement that he would support the effort, but by week's end, those prospects dimmed as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) told the president he wouldn't bring the bill to a floor vote this year.

[Update: McConnell is facing pressure from the religious right as well as from the president to allow a vote.]

The grinch who stole sentencing reform. (Creative Commons/Gage Skidmore)
The bill is known as the First Step Act. The House passed a version of this spring, but the House version was limited to reforms on the "back end," such as slightly increasing good time credits for federal prisoners and providing higher levels of reentry and rehabilitation services.

The Senate bill crafted by a handful of key senators and pushed hard by presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner incorporates the language of the House bill, but also adds actual sentencing reforms. Under the Senate bill:

  • Thousands of prisoners sentenced for crack cocaine offenses before August 2010 (the date of the Fair Sentencing Act, which reduced, but did not eliminate sentencing disparities) would get the chance to petition for a reduced sentence.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses would be lowered.
  • Life sentences for drug offenders with three convictions ("three strikes") would be reduced to 25 years.

Even though the bill has been a top priority of Kushner's and had the support of numerous national law enforcement groups and conservative criminal justice groups, as well as the support of key Democrats, such as Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), McConnell told Trump at a White House meeting Thursday that there wasn't enough time in the lame-duck session to take it up.

"McConnell said he didn't have the time, that's his way of saying this isn't going to happen," said Michael Collins, interim director of the Drug Policy Alliance's (DPA) Office of National Affairs. "McConnell was a roadblock under Obama and he's a roadblock now. He likes to hide behind the process but I think he just doesn't like or care about this issue."

McConnell's move upset what should have been a done deal, said Collins.

"Once First Step passed the House, some key figures on the Senate side, such as Sens. Durbin and Grassley, said it wouldn't move without sentencing reform, and then Kushner facilitated negotiations between the Senate and the White House and they reached broad agreement this summer," he recounted. "Then the question was can we get this to the floor? McConnell sat down with Grassley and Durbin and said after the elections, and Trump agreed with that. The idea was that if Trump would get on board, McConnell would hold a vote, would whip a vote. He wanted 60 votes; there are 60 votes. Then McConnell said the Senate has a lot to do. At the end of the day, it's up to McConnell. When Trump endorsed people thought it would move McConnell, but he just poured cold water on it."

If McConnell sticks to his guns, then sentencing reform will be dead in this Congress. And as long as Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, he is likely to be an impediment to reform.

"McConnell is the obstacle -- it's not Tom Cotton (R-AR) or Jeff Sessions -- it's McConnell, and he's going to be there next year and the year after that," said Collins. "He is the prime obstacle to criminal justice reform, even though a lot of groups on the right are in favor of this. Since he isn't going to listen to us, it's going to be up to them to figure this out."

"If McConnell doesn't prioritize this, it doesn't happen," said Kara Gotsch, director of strategic initiatives for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group. That's a shame, she said, because "I'm optimistic both parties would support this if they got the chance."

There is a possible upside: Failure to pass limited criminal justice reform this year could lead to a bill next year that goes further than limited sentencing reforms.

"It's been a long, hard slog to get to where we are," said Collins, "but now some people are saying this compromise stuff gets us nowhere and we should be doing things like enacting retroactivity for sentencing reforms, eliminating all mandatory minimums for drug offenses, and decriminalizing all drugs."

"My job is to continue to beat the drum for change," said Gotsch. "It's always hard, and we don't get those opportunities a lot. Momentum doesn't come very often, regardless of who is in power, and we can't let these small windows close without doing our best to move the ball forward. This has been my concern for 20 years -- the conditions these prisoners face, the injustice -- and we will keep pushing. The federal prison system is in crisis."

The federal prison population peaked at 219,000 in 2013, driven largely by drug war prosecutions, and has since declined slightly to about 181,000. But that number is still three times the number of federal prisoners behind bars when the war on drugs ratcheted up under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. There is still lots of work to be done, but perhaps next time, we demand deeper changes.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a financial supporter of both Drug War Chronicle and Drug Reporter.

How This Red State's Cruel Meth Laws Are Putting Women Behind Bars in Record Numbers [FEATURE]

Like other Great Plains states, South Dakota has a methamphetamine problem. But it's becoming increasingly evident that South Dakota also has a problem with the way it deals with meth.

South Dakota women's prison in Pierre (KELO-TV screen grab)
Because of its strict drug laws, the state is seeing a dramatic spike in women being sent to prison for meth. According to a new report from the nonprofit South Dakota News Watch, the number of women in prison in the state has jumped 35 percent since 2013, while the male prison population has increased at only one-quarter of that rate. Nearly two-thirds of all women prisoners in the state are there for nonviolent drug offenses. The state now has the fourth-highest incarceration rate for women in the country, trailing only Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Kentucky.

Overall, about one-third of all inmates in the state are doing time for drug-related offenses, the majority of them for simple drug possession. That's a higher percentage than most other states, where drug offenders tend to make up somewhere around 20 to 25 percent of the inmate population.

The high drug-related incarceration overall and for women in particular stems less from the prevalence of drug use than from the conservative, largely rural state's reaction to it. South Dakota has not responded to decades of failed war on drug policies by reforming them, but by doubling down on them.

The state has not moved toward the defelonization of drug possession, as at least 16 others have. Instead, it has moved in the opposite direction. South Dakota has mandatory sentencing laws that include prison for not only for the manufacture and distribution of meth but also for simple possession.

State lawmakers and cops have long favored tough drug laws, and they are still at it. This year, state Attorney General Marty Jackley (R) guided bills through the legislature that heighten penalties for meth dealing and increase sentences for dealers whose clients overdose and die.

But the state's most notorious and contentious drug law -- bone that is sending hundreds of people to prison -- is the state's "possession by ingestion" statute. Otherwise known as an "internal possession" law, the statute allows for a felony conviction if a drug test reveals the presence of illicit drugs in a suspect's system. (The law also applies to marijuana, but the penalty for testing positive for pot is only a misdemeanor.)

The strictest in the nation, that law was upheld by the state Supreme Court in 2004. Last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers filed a measure that would have slightly tweaked the law by removing marijuana, but that bill was killed by a unanimous vote in the first committee that heard it.

As of August, about nine percent of the male prison population and an astonishing 21 percent of the female prison population was doing time for unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance. That's right: More than one out of five women prisoners in South Dakota is behind prison bars for nothing more than having used drugs.

South Dakota law enforcement and lawmakers may be happy with the status quo, but the man who actually runs the prison system isn't. State Corrections Secretary Denny Kaemingk told South Dakota News Watch that the cops' and courts' proclivity for busting and imprisoning women on drug charges is creating an expensive and ineffective cycle of imprisonment, release, and recidivism.

"We seem to think that locking individuals up is going to solve their addiction problem," said Kaemingk, a former drug officer. "They're coming to us in corrections and we're thinking that solves the problem, and I think in many cases it makes the problem worse."

Criminalizing addiction, especially among women who are mothers, Kraemingk said, creates a situation where the children are more likely to end up in prison themselves. He pointed to national studies showing that up to 80 percent of children who have parents behind bars will end up there themselves.

"Imprisonment in South Dakota is generational," Kaemingk said. "The females behind prison walls have experienced that as a child. The generation we have back there now as inmates experienced the same things when they were children."

Kraemingk and other relatively enlightened actors in the state are pushing for enhanced treatment opportunities and expanding drug courts, among other measures, to better deal with the situation, but nobody seems to be talking about not involving these women in the criminal justice system in the first place. A first step would be getting rid of that hideous "possession by ingestion" statute. The next step would be defelonization or outright decriminalization of drug possession in the state. Drug use absent harm to others should not be the state's business.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School